How to Use Foreshadowing

How to Use Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a necessary part of any well-executed story. And yet, despite all its prevalence and importance, it’s actually a concept that many authors have a hard time getting their minds around. If we sift foreshadowing down to its simplest form, we could say that it prepares readers for what will happen later in the story.

At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen later in the story? If they know how the book turns out, they’ll have no reason to read on.

True enough. So let me reiterate. The point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for what happens later in the story. Not tell them,just prepare them.

Foreshadowing’s great strength lies in its ability to create a cohesive and plausible story. If readers understand that it’s possible that someone in your story may be murdered, they won’t be completely shocked when the sidekick gets axed down the road. If, however, you failed to properly foreshadow this unhappy event,readers would be jarred. They would feel you had cheated them out of the story they thought they were reading. They would think you had, in essence, lied to them so you could trick them with this big shocker.

Readers don’t like to be cheated, lied to, or tricked. And that’s where foreshadowing comes into play.

Foreshadowing, Part 1: The Plant

We can break foreshadowing down into two parts. The first is the plant. This is the part where you hint to readers that something surprising and/or important is going to happen later in the book. If the bad guy is going to kidnap the good guy’s son, your plant might be the moment when your hero notices a creepy dude hanging around the playground. If your heroine is going to be left standing at the altar, your plant might be her fiancé’s ambivalence toward the wedding preparations.

Depending on what you’re foreshadowing, the plant can be blatant or subtle. Subtle is almost always better, since you don’t want to giveaway your plot twists. But, at the same time, your hints have to be obvious enough that readers will remember them later on.

Usually, the earlier you can foreshadow an event, the stronger and more cohesive an effect you will create. The bigger the event, the more important it is to foreshadow it early. As editor Jeff Gerke puts it in The First 50 Pages:

Basically, you need to let us in on the rules. If the climax of your book is going to consist of getting into a time machine and jumping away to safety, we had better have known in the first fifty pages that time travel is possible in the world of your story.

Foreshadowing, Part 2: The Payoff

Once you’ve got your plant in place, all that’s left is to bring the payoff on stage. If you planted hints about kidnapping, jilting, or time travelling, this is the part where you now get to let these important scenes play out.

As long as you’ve done your job right with the plant, you probably won’t even need to reference your hints from earlier. In fact, you’re likely to create a more solid effect by letting readers put the pieces together themselves.

But you’ll also find moments, usually of smaller events that were given less obvious plants, that will benefit from a quick reference to the original hint (e.g., “George,you big meanie! Now I understand why you wouldn’t choose between the scarlet and the crimson for the bridesmaids’ dresses!”)The most important thing to remember about the payoff is that it always needs to happen. If you plant hints, pay them off. Just as readers will be confused by an unforeshadowed plot twist, they’ll also be frustrated by foreshadowing that excites them and then leads nowhere.

Foreshadowing vs. Telegraphing

The trick to good foreshadowing is preparing your readers on a subconscious level for what’s coming without allowing them to guess the ins and outs of the plot twist. You don’t want your hints to be so obvious that they remove all suspense. In her October 2012 Writer’s Digest article “Making the Ordinary Menacing: 5 Ways,” Hallie Ephron calls this “telegraphing”:

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’v etelegraphed.

Some clever readers will undoubtedly be able to interpret your hints, no matter how cagey you are. But if you can fool most of the readers most of the time, you can’t ask for more than that.

Foreshadowing vs. Foreboding

Foreboding—that skin-prickling feeling that something horrible is going to happen—can be a useful facet of foreshadowing. By itself, foreboding isn’t specific enough to be foreshadowing. Unlike the plants used for foreshadowing, foreboding is just an ambiguous aura of suspense. Jordan E. Rosenfeld describes it in Make a Scene:

[F]oreshadowing … hints at actual plot events to come, [but]foreboding is purely about mood-setting. It heightens the feeling of tension in a scene but doesn’t necessarily indicate that something bad really will happen.

Foreboding is useful in setting readers’ emotions on edge without giving them any blatant hints. But when it comes time to foreshadow important events, always back up your foreboding by planting some specific clues.Most authors have so intrinsic an understanding of foreshadowing that they plant it and pay it off without even fully realizing that’s what they’re doing. But the better you understand the technique, the better you can wield it. Using this basic approach to foreshadowing, you can strengthen your story and your readers’ experience of it.

Tell me your opinion: What was the last event you foreshadowed in your story? Did you do it consciously or unconsciously?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Usually unconsciously. I’m a pantser from the word go, so often I find myself “following up” on minor details earlier in the book that turn out to be foreshadowing. Then I’ll go back in edits and strengthen them.

  2. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we can actually achieve a more organic foreshadowing when we’re filling in the payoff as we go. But, at the same time, we can often achieve a tighter effect by then going back and strengthening the original plant.

  3. For my novel, a major character dies at the end. I went back after I’d written the first draft and added bits of foreshadowing so it wouldn’t be so jarring.

    I recently read a book written in first POV where the character kept thinking things like, “Looking back, we should’ve known that this choice would have horrible consequences…everything was about to go wrong…this was the last day things would be normal,” etc. For me, that was overkill. Yes, prepare me for something to happen, but don’t repeatedly beat me over the head about it.

  4. If the POV character was saying the “looking back” line *before* the payoff, then, yes, that’s definitely overkill. We want to poke readers in the right direction, but we never want to overplay our hand. Mystery reigns!

  5. Mine was a mix of both conscious and unconscious. After my 1st draft, I went back and added some foreshadowing, and streghtened other parts to keep the story flowing.

  6. That’s how it often happens. We don’t always know what we’re foreshadowing until later when the event actually happens.

  7. Would you say that Foreshadowing/Payoff in a novel is like Setup/Payoff in a movie?

  8. Yes, setup/payoff in a film is basically the same as plant/payoff in a novel. In fact, the terms are pretty interchangeable. Both refer to fulfilled foreshadowing.

  9. Hi K.M.

    Oooo, this was a lovely post to read and one that is very reassuring to me. I’m now half way through my first fiction book and I have left a few little clues here and there throughout my story. It’s nice to read that I’m on the right lines for this. (Pardon the pun, of course).

  10. By the time we’re done with a first draft, we’ll usually discover plants that we never properly paid off – or vice versa. It’s rare to get foreshadowing completely solid on the first try. Not until that first draft is finished will we have a total understanding of which areas need to be either strengthened or diminished.

  11. I think in in the three manuscripts so far it has been a mixture of conscious and unconscious foreshadowing – but I’ve become more intentional about it as I’ve developed as a writer.

    I like where you say “Some clever readers will undoubtedly be able to interpret your hints, no matter how cagey you are. But if you can fool most of the readers most of the time, you can’t ask for more than that.”

    One of the beta readers on my first manuscript was totally surprised by the ending (though happy because of the foreshadowing), another predicted one element but not the other while another told me it was “predictable”. So I’m wondering – did I “telegraph” rather than “foreshadow” – maybe I need to misdirect a bit more (as well as foreshadow).

    Which brings me to a question – what do you think about misdirection or red herrings in a plot. For instance in my current manuscript – a taste for chilled nuts is important to fingering a villain – so that is a subtle thread throughout the story and I give an indirect hint that it might be who it is but also other broader hints that it may be someone else (who is in fact innocent). I also give other foreshadowing as well. All of which comes together in a climatic scene. So how legitimate is misdirection?

  12. If you’re writing a mystery, you’re able to get away with much more misdirection than you would be able to in other genres, simply because that’s the name of the game. But you still have to play fair. You can get away with lots of subtle clues, but anything blatant has to be addressed later on – if only by having the protagonists follow up on the lead and run it into a justifiable dead end.

  13. I chart arcs for my foreshadowing. As the story progresses, information is introduced until the payoff is reached. This is one aspect of writing I greatly enjoy. The process is similar to telling a joke by setting it up then giving the punch line (which I also enjoy doing).

    Some arcs do little more than deepen the story world or characters while others prepare readers for significant plot events. Often scenes seem pointless, but later in the story, in retrospect, the purpose becomes clear — an aha moment.

    An example is one arc I worked on today involving medicinal plants and how the protagonist learns about them. Another arc is about a character the protagonist decides is the village’s Master Alchemist. Those two arcs intersect when the protagonist learns the alchemist uses the medicinal plants to make the magic-like medical salve that relieves pain, stops bleeding, prevents infection, and promotes healing. He had had multiple occasions to use the salve, but had not known from where it came. Aha, now he knows.

    I also enjoy the Dragon’s fascination with shiny objects encountered during the adventure. This culminates with the protagonist visiting the Dragon’s lair and discovering a huge hoard of shiny objects. Aha, that explains why the Dragon often says, “Ooh, shiny. May I have it?”

    I am having too much fun.

  14. The comparison between foreshadowing and joke telling is apropos. In both instances, we’re priming the readers’ attention, then delivering the goods.

  15. My stories run on character arcs not outlines so foreshadowing is a biggy with me. I’ll often start with a sort of impressionistic shadow of what the character is going to go through and build the reader through it to the conclusion. I also make extensive use of back shadowing using and event to hint at a characters past that will later be revealed in the novel. I find that by hinting that a certain event is nostalgic or painful for a character without telling why prepares the reader for the backstory that is to come later. This also keep backstory from being boring to the reader, they want to know WHY holding a baby is so bittersweetly awkward for Roddy and so they stay interested when he tells Eric about his stillborn sister and early relationship with his now estranged brother. If I had started with Roddy dumping his past on Eric the reader would have gotten bored and read something else.

    My favorite method of foreshadowing is deja vu. I like to give my characters an experience that seems unimportant but that holds a clue for the future and then to repeat the experience on a different scale and setting to jolt the reader into understanding the earlier hint.

  16. You raise a good point in that even things that happened *before* the story proper sometimes need to be foreshadowed. If the backstory is a big secret that will later be revealed in a way that will dramatically affect the plot, it too needs to be foreshadowed.

  17. Thank you thank you thank you
    This is exactly the article I needed at exactly the right time.
    Did I say thank you yet?

  18. Glad you enjoyed it!

  19. The first sentence of my memoir foreshadows the rest: I hate boys’ games.

    It foreshadows the tag game opening scene, my father’s abuse (beginning with the hide the soap game), and then other games as I grow older and begin the healing process.

    This is a wonderful post. I added it to my useful manuscript helps folder

  20. I love it when opening lines function as foreshadowing for the entire novel. It allows them to be a door, of sorts, opening onto the book itself.

  21. Great clarification of terms. Very helpful.

    In my period YA adventure I have the hero (a fourteen year old boy) show off his skills of sleight of hand early on. And it’s those same skills which save the day at the end when he switches an item, which then helps to condemn the bad guy.

  22. As a reader/viewer, it always makes me insanely happy when a skill featured early on is the same skill necessary for the hero to conquer in the climax. It shows a great story awareness on the author’s part.

  23. Can a character itself be a foreshadowing? For now my book is split in two simultaneous stories which will meet in the end – a la Two Towers. I have teased a bad guy in one side and I am about to throw hints (of that very same bad guy’s arrival) in the other. So it’s not only an event that I am foreshadowing but the character himself. Does that make sense?

  24. Yes, definitely makes sense. If readers understand something about Character #2′s motivation and particularly if they get the sense of the inevitable motion that is carrying him toward an intersection with Character #1, then his very presence is a foreshadowing plant.

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